By Jason Vickers
In 1963 E. R. Dodds, poet and personal friend of T. S. Eliot, as well as the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, gave a brilliant series of lectures at Queen’s University Belfast in Ireland. In his lectures, Dodds described the world of early Christianity as “an age of anxiety.” He depicted an age brimming with visions and dreams, as well as with asceticism and possession. In other words, the age of anxiety was also an age of prophecy.
But there was another side to Dodds’ account of early Christian history. If the age of anxiety gave rise to prophets and prophecy, then it also helped to create a drive for orthodoxy and order. Christians “were split into many warring sects, which had little or nothing in common save the name of Christian.” There was “as yet no authoritative Christian creed nor any fixed canon of Christian scripture.” Beginning in the third century, however, Christians became increasingly determined to mark off orthodoxy from heresy and to establish rules for ordering both their worship and their lives. Thus the age of anxiety was also an age of structure.
What was most compelling about Dodds’ account of early Christianity was the subtle way in which he kept the prophetic and the priestly structure in constant tension with one another. For example, Dodds told his audience of a second-century prophetess known by Tertullian to converse “with angels and sometimes even with the Lord,” and of children known by Cyprian to have “visions and auditions sent by the Holy Spirit, not only in sleep but in waking states of ekstasis.” But he also reminded them that the Holy Spirit whispered to Ignatius, “Do nothing without the Bishop.”
The Western church is presently immersed in yet another age of anxiety. It is characterized by pessimism and despair over the current state of the church and by uncertainty and fear about the church’s future.
However, our current situation is also like previous ages of anxiety in that it is teeming with prophetic figures who are promoting visions and dreams for the church and who are often critical of the church’s leadership. Not surprisingly, these prophetic figures, like their predecessors in ages past, frequently find themselves the target of criticism by “church dignitaries.” In other words, we are once again experiencing the tension between the prophetic and the priestly, or between prophecy and structure.
The primary problem that we face is one that arises anytime the church experiences a tension between prophecy and structure, namely, how to discern the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. As it turns out, this problem is two-sided. On the one side, there is a problem of discernment with respect to prophecy. Not everyone who claims to have a vision from God is a prophet. Like ancient Israel before it, the church has known its fair share of false prophets. At the same time, we would be wise to follow Irenaeus’ advice not to ban prophecy altogether simply because we have seen a false prophet or two.
On the other side, there is a problem of discernment with regard to the church’s structures. During times of extreme pessimism, uncertainty and fear, many people are tempted (partly by the influence and charisma of prophets) to set Spirit and structure wholly against one another. Yet it is far from clear that the Spirit is opposed to structure. On the contrary, we can make a good case that the church’s structures are themselves gifts of the Spirit to be received and cherished as means of grace through which we come to know and to love God.
To be sure, not everything that passes for structure is a gift for all seasons. Some charismata are clearly temporary in that the Spirit appears to have given them for a particular place and time in the life of the church. But other gifts, such as the sacraments, would seem to have a more enduring, even permanent place in the life of the church. In an age in which some are intimating that the Spirit may have withdrawn from certain ecclesial structures, we clearly need to develop an angle of vision from which we can work to identify the presence and work of the Spirit in and through the church’s structures.
The Present Age of Anxiety
Over the relatively short period of fifty years, a series of events has catapulted the Western church from the confident and at times exuberant optimism of the ecumenical movement in the 1960s to a deep and unsettling anxiety that began in the 1980s and that continues to the present day. Clergy, theologians, and other church leaders are clearly troubled about the current state and future of the church.
A quick survey of recent theological literature on the church confirms the diagnosis that we are living in an age of anxiety. For example, one prominent theologian recently declared that we are living in the ruins of the church. Another has announced the end of the church. And yet another has suggested that we are already living in a new dark age.
There are no fewer than eight developments that are fueling their anxiety.
1. Over the last fifty years, we have witnessed a steep decline in worship attendance and church membership in the West. Report after report has shown that local congregations and entire denominations in North America and western Europe are now in a statistical tailspin.
2. Over the last few decades, we have witnessed countless public scandals involving high-profile leaders.
3. Far from realizing the dreams of the ecumenical movement in the 1960s, we have witnessed numerous acrimonious disputes within denominations, some of which have resulted in church splits.
4. We have wrestled for several decades with the prospects of secularization. We have told ourselves repeatedly that the culture is increasingly secular, that there is a bias against religion in general and against Christianity in particular, and that Christendom is dead.
5. We have struggled with the extent to which Western culture now seems to revolve more around entertainment and recreation than religion. On this analysis, the problem is not that people are hardened atheists or secularists. They are simply finding it difficult consistently to make time for the church amidst their other commitments, including watching their favorite television shows, taking their kids to Sunday soccer leagues, attending professional sporting events, going to the movies, and a host of other weekend pleasures.
6. While we are worrying about secularization and the obsession with entertainment and recreation, we are also increasingly aware of the influence of other world religions in the West via globalization. We routinely hear that the church is losing “market share” to Islam, Zen Buddhism, and even to new religions. To complicate matters, we know that inclusivism and tolerance are now among the highest values in Western culture.
7. We are reluctantly beginning to acknowledge that the professionalization of the ministry has both assets and liabilities. After more than a century of commitment to higher theological education and to rigorous credentialing processes for clergy, we now see that we may have unwittingly discouraged the laity from active participation in the work of ministry.
8. Ironically enough, at the same time that the drive to professionalize the ministry was mandating that clergy become highly educated, religious literacy among the general population was plummeting. Studies have shown that, over the last fifty years, fewer and fewer people can name the four Gospels, not to mention the rest of the books of Scripture.
We could easily think of more reasons to be anxious about the current state and future of the church in the postmodern West. For example, we might add to the list the transformation of theology from a practical discipline intimately related to the sacramental life of the church to a speculative and scientific discipline struggling to meet the demands of the so-called “hard sciences” in the modern university. However, we have done enough to secure the point that we are living in an age of great anxiety. We must now turn our attention to a response.
The goal of church renewal
Most of us think about and advocate for church renewal because we are concerned about numeric decline in the worship attendance and church membership of our local congregations and denominations. This is perfectly understandable. Numeric decline is a real and growing concern. It is not primarily a matter of poor marketing. On the contrary, numeric decline suggests that we are not doing a good job with evangelism, catechesis, and discipleship. So we are in no way suggesting that we should simply ignore numeric decline.
The problem here has to do with nearsightedness. We see problems directly in front of us, but we rarely look further down the road. We do not take the time to think about what we really desire for the church over the long haul. We succumb to the tyranny of the urgent, doing whatever it takes to stave off further decline and, if possible, to increase worship attendance and church membership. In most cases, the formula for growth is simple enough. We freshen up our worship, we emphasize hospitality to the unchurched, and we work hard to create a warm and friendly environment.
Let us be clear. Clergy and laity should be worried about worship attendance and church membership. However, we need to address an even deeper issue. We need to put as much time and energy into thinking about why people should come to church as we do into thinking about how to get them to come. In other words, we need to think carefully about what the church actually has to offer people who come to worship or who become members. If we are not clear about why people will be better off for the trouble of getting out of bed on Sunday morning, then we may succeed in boosting attendance for a season, but we will fall short of the long-haul renewal that we so desperately need and desire.
In the postmodern West, people want to know more than how big the church is. They want to know whether the church has anything of substance to offer. They want to know whether the Christian God is impotent or indifferent. They want to know whether Christians are truly different; whether we are the called-out ones, sanctified and made perfect in love for God and ministry to one another and to the world. They want to know whether the church is a place of spiritual stagnation or genuine spiritual growth.
Aiming toward Perfect Ministry and Perfect Love
To speak of “perfect ministry” and “perfect love” as the goal of church renewal will no doubt strike some as hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic. We must be very careful to say that by perfect ministry and perfect love we do not mean that the church should advertise herself as a sinless or flawless community. Rather, perfect ministry and perfect love is the goal toward which the church strains. Indispensable to this straining is the ongoing work of mutual confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Indeed, the church will be about the business of perfect ministry and perfect love only when she becomes the kind of place where people feel free to tell the truth about themselves. Far from a sign of imperfection, humble repentance and forgiveness is a crucial part of perfect ministry and perfect love made possible by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit among the people of God.
Having said these things, what ought to set the church apart from the wider culture in which it is situated is a robust sense that we are not doomed perpetually to repeat our sins. We are not doomed perpetually to violate ourselves and those around us. We are not doomed to self-hatred or pride, to manipulation or victimhood. We are not doomed to selfishness, to greed, or to lust. We are not doomed to racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism. Thus while the church must provide time and space for humble repentance and for forgiveness, she must also make clear that she possesses powerful medicine by which we can be delivered from our violence and insanity, from our hostilities and insecurities, and from all forms of idolatry. So equipped, what we ought to desire in our efforts to renew the church is nothing less than the sanctification and perfecting of the people of God.
The perfecting of the church in ministry and love is not an abstract idea without shape or content. On the contrary, perfect ministry and perfect love are concrete in their manifestation. The Spirit sanctifies and perfects the church in and through the means of grace which the Spirit so generously makes available. Through the means of grace, including prayer, repentance, confession, fasting, worship, reading the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the like, the Holy Spirit creates divine graces in the people of God that they would not otherwise enjoy and for which they would not otherwise have a capacity.
While the church has described the divine graces that the Holy Spirit creates in her members in a variety of ways across the centuries, three ways of talking about them are especially worth mentioning. In and through the sacramental life of the church, the Holy Spirit forms in the church’s members three things: the mind of Christ, the theological virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit.
Through the formation of the mind of Christ, the Holy Spirit enables the church’s members to exhibit the attitudes and dispositions of a servant in their relationships to God, to one another, and to the world (Philippians 2). Rather than clinging to their lives, the church’s members are enabled by the Holy Spirit to give their lives away freely for the sake of others.
Through the formation of the theological virtues, the Holy Spirit enables the church’s members to exhibit faith, hope, and love in good times and bad (1 Corinthians 13). Instead of turning to cynicism and despair or to a politics of revenge, the Holy Spirit enables the church’s members to remain faithful unto death, to give the hopeless reason to hope, and to embody a politics of loving kindness toward friends and enemies alike.
In bringing about the fruits of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit enables the church’s members truly to display love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and self-control toward one another and toward the world (Galatians 5).
When the mind of Christ, the theological virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit are manifest in the life of the church, people cannot help noticing. After all, life in the postmodern West is anything but loving and peaceful.
The truth is that we do not need more demographic or generational studies to figure out what people are looking for. In the midst of workplaces full of resentment and hostility, people are searching for love. Surrounded by anxiety and depression, people are looking for joy. Amid the violence and insanity of city streets and war-torn countries, people are searching high and low for peace. Faced with spouses and co-workers who lose their tempers at a moment’s notice, people are looking for self-control. Amid rampant road rage, people are in desperate need of patience. Against the backdrop that is the harshness and cruelty of the evening news, people will inevitably be drawn to churches that exhibit gentleness and kindness in every aspect of their lives. Over against the gospel of pervasive pessimism about human nature and human communities, people will be drawn to churches that proclaim and embody a gospel of transformation and holiness.
Conceived along these lines, the real question for the church is not whether we can get people to come to church in the first place. The real question is whether, upon coming, they will find compelling reasons to return time and time again.
People will not be drawn to and held captive by the church simply because it carefully preserves and maintains its long-standing structures. Nor will they be drawn to and held captive by the church simply because it is part of a prophetic movement aimed at renewal or reform. Rather, people will ultimately be drawn to and held captive by the church when they discover in the church something they cannot readily get anywhere else, namely, a community that embodies in readily discernible ways the mind of Christ, the theological virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit. In other words, they will be drawn to and held captive by those churches that bear the marks of incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God. Short of this, people may come to the church for a season, but they will ultimately look elsewhere for their salvation.
If I am right about the changing sensibilities in the wider culture of the postmodern West, then we need to stop and ask ourselves whether it is time to adjust our strategies for reaching the culture around us. We need to ask ourselves whether first-time inquirers want to hear arguments in defense of the existence of God or self-flagellating apologies about the church’s complicity in social and structural evil. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for such things. It is simply to suggest that visitors may now be looking for something more basic and fundamental, namely, to hear what the Holy Trinity is like and to see what difference the Holy Trinity has made in the lives of Christians. It is to suggest that we may now be living in a time in which people are longing to encounter the sacred and in which they are searching high and low for the holy.
If this reading of the culture is even half right, then the time has come for the church to regain her confidence that she really does have a gift of inestimable value to offer to the world—something that the world cannot readily acquire elsewhere, namely, incorporation into the Trinitarian life of God. For better or worse, this is the only gift that the church has ever had to offer to the world.
Accordingly, what ultimately matters with regard to prophetic movements and ecclesial structures is whether or not, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can learn once again to receive and to appropriate them both not as ends in themselves, but as means of grace through which we can come to know and to love the Triune God. Whether or not the wider culture is ready to receive this gift is a matter that is open for debate. The fact remains that this is the only gift that the church has to offer. And even this she does not really have. Rather, she receives it anew and afresh each day from the Holy Spirit. Therein is the source of our hope for the future.
Jason E. Vickers is Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including most recently The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley; Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed; and Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology.
This essay is excerpted by permission from his new book Minding the Good Ground: A Theology of Church Renewal (Baylor).